Chapter 54 - Reunion

There were no words in any language to describe Rhinure's condition as she approached the Palace. Who could find words for a situation where the throat dried up and words refused to form? For a situation where the heart beat so madly in the chest that it hurt? Where fingers clutched themselves so tightly that nails broke the skin?

Truly, Rhinure thought, there could be no words to describe what she felt. But she was afraid that Cothion could come up with a few, choice suggestions. Suggestions she probably would not appreciate.

Cothion's eyes narrowed as he considered Rhinure. Even from the distance, he could smell her fear. Since leaving the stream, he had been observing his Sacrifice very closely. To say that he did not like what he saw would have been an understatement.

Rhinure was afraid to be returning to her husband, and that fear was making her behave in a manner not befitting her station. She was distracted and almost short to the rest of the company. In all the long years that Cothion had known her, he had only seen such a shameful display on two occasions. One had been when her parents, Barion and Sarniel, had died, and the other when she had become Sacrifice.

Barion's death and Sarniel's consequent fading and eventual death from grief had been traumatic on the young elleth. Though she had never seemed particularly close to either of her parents, Cothion did not know if she even considered them family, but Blood they had been, so he understood why such a loss would have shaken her. If he had been brutally honest with himself, he knew that put in her situation he would have acted no different. Perhaps it was this understanding or an ingrained lesson that made him and the other Avari turn aside their faces, giving her the privacy she needed.

Her emotional collapse after becoming Sacrifice was less excusable, but once again Cothion had managed. It would not have done for the Heir to believe that his Mistress was not competent. Besides, he saw it as a purging of Rhinure's old life – an emptying of emotions so that she could do what was necessary for her people.

For a while, he thought she had succeeded. The dignity and impassiveness with which she had handled Morion's death had been exemplary. If Cothion had not known Rhinure for her entire life, he would not have been able to tell that she had been grieving. He had never been as proud of her as he was then. Yes, there were signs that she was in pain, but she had never let her people see them. She had been strong for them, a pillar around which they could build their lives.

And now this Eldar Prince threatened that pillar. Looking at Rhinure, feeling her agitation deep in his bones, Cothion was aware of how dangerous this situation was for the Avari. If the Prince could affect her like this after only a few short months of marriage, what would he do after a prolonged exposure?

Cothion would have to watch Mistress Rhinure carefully when they reached the Palace. He needed to gauge whether she would be strong enough to do what was necessary, and clear-headed enough to define necessity in the Avari fashion.

Though Cothion would not admit it, even to himself, he feared what would happen if Rhinure was not firm enough. What would the Avari do then? Could they afford to lose another Sacrifice so soon? Especially one so intertwined with the Clan as Rhinure was?

Cothion hoped he would never have to answer that question.

  x – x – x – x – x – x – x – x

As Legolas donned the formal robes he would wear to greet his Princess, he noticed with some surprise that his hands were steady as they slipped the tiny buttons in place. It was a matter of pride that he was able to maintain such a tight control over himself. True his wife was coming home, but she had not been away that long. Besides, there was no need to make a fool of himself in front of her.

If there was one thing Legolas was sure of, it was that Rhinure would not behave with anything but the most chilling decorum. She would never let any of her feelings slip through in public. That is, if she felt anything at all in the first place.

Legolas frowned, he was being unfair; Rhinure probably did feel something. It was just that he was unsure whether what she felt was positive or not. Did she feel anything that came close to the almost giddy delight he was feeling at the moment? Was she looking forward to seeing him as much as he was looking forward to seeing her? Probably not.

After all, there was no reason to. She was leaving her home and her people to come back to a person, who even though he was her husband, she hardly knew. Any joy she felt had to be mitigated with some sorrow. Sorrow that she would never share with him.

And if she would not share, then Legolas would not force her to.

As Legolas walked out of his chambers to join his father, his stride was measured and his face calm.

  x – x – x – x – x – x – x – x

Thranduil glanced at his son as Legolas came to stand beside him at the top of the Palace steps. From their position they could see right down to the courtyard, over the heads of the waiting elves, right to the very gates. When the Avari Company returned they would clearly be able to see the King and Prince, waiting to greet them.

And what a sight it would be.

Both wore their official robes, the silver thread catching in the early morning light. The King's robes were a deeper shade of green, and his head covered with a coronet of leaves, in contrast to the silver circlet that graced the Prince's head. Carriages erect, they looked over their people, two tall, golden elves standing tall, with pride written in every line of their person. The Silvan elves who saw them, loved them with a satisfaction that came with knowing that they were their Royal family.

"Are you ready to greet your wife?"

"Of course, my Lord," Legolas answered smoothly.

At the formal address, Thranduil glanced at his son from the corner of his eye. So his son would be playing the Prince today and not the husband. Perhaps that was best since the Princess' return would also bring home the Avari Sacrifice. Still, Thranduil could not help but miss the enthusiasm Legolas had displayed last night.

Last night, he had been worried about letting the Prince take precedence over his son. Today, it seemed as if Legolas had made that decision for himself. Rhinure would be greeted by her Lord as befitted her status as Royal Princess and leader of her people.

When Thranduil turned back to address his people, he made sure that none of his disappointment showed on his face.

  x – x – x – x – x – x – x – x

As the Palace gates appeared over the horizon, Rhinure took a deep breath and smoothed her skirts, though they did not need it.

Making sure that the rest of her Company were presentable, she rode towards the Palace.

*~ And Legolas. ~*

  x – x – x – x – x – x – x – x

Hearing the excited murmurs and sporadic cheers from the crowd, Legolas gathered that the Avari Company was in sight. He craned his neck ever so slightly, hoping to catch sight of her – them – sooner.

Thranduil watched his people and his son and found that there was still much to rejoice in today.

  x – x – x – x – x – x – x – x

As soon as the party rode in the elves waiting on the side started cheering. The Princess might be strange, but she was wife to their Prince. These dark elves might not be what they expected, but they were there to help them. With an acceptance that took great courage, the Wood-elves hailed Rhinure's return.

She was not what they had hoped for, but she was theirs.

  x – x – x – x – x – x – x – x

As Rhinure entered the Palace gates, she was taken aback at the cheers that followed her. It was so different from her reception at Tirnen, that for a moment she did not know what to do. The volume of noise, the exuberant cries all made her feel uncomfortable, as if she were the centre of a maelstrom.

From the stiffness in the rest of the Avari, Rhinure knew that they, too, were unsure how to act. Even they did not comprehend the reason for such a display on the Wood-elves' part. They had been expecting some sort of delegation to be waiting for them, but never this.

In their confusion, the Avari did what they had been trained to do in such uncertain situations – they ignored what they could and proceeded as normal. Which meant that they made it with some measure of decorum and did not actively retreat.

At least, Rhinure thought, with a not inconsiderable measure of hidden amusement, Cothion seemed completely staggered. This was the first time he had been exposed to the force that was the Wood-elves, and he had not come out of it unscathed. It was easy for the Council to condemn her behaviour while they sat in Tirnen, surrounded by familiar people and buffeted by clear codes of behaviour. It was not so simple when they were put in the middle of a strange environment.

No matter what opinion Cothion formed by the time he left, one thing was certain. He would have a better understanding of the difficult situation Rhinure was in.

She was just not sure if that was a good thing or not.

Rhinure looked at Cothion, wondering what was going on in that scheming mind of his. It was difficult enough to gauge what he was thinking at the best of times. When he had his Avari mask held firmly in place, it became almost impossible. Rhinure was adept at seeing the hidden but Cothion was just as skilled at hiding.

Rhinure was distracted from her own musings when she saw Legolas. All thoughts of Cothion were pushed aside. There was no space for them in her head at that moment, for she was too busy cataloguing the way Legolas was dressed, the way he held himself, the way he walked towards her.

Involuntarily, her breath caught as Legolas stepped out of the shadow of the Palace into the sun. She had been right when she had said that he shone. With Anor behind him, he literally glowed, so much so that Rhinure was slightly afraid. He was beautiful.

Or perhaps, she was more afraid of the smile on his face, the charm that he exuded. On the one hand, she was afraid that somehow she would manage to leech even that slight pleasure from him. And on the other, she could not help but feel slightly bothered that he did not seem happier to see her. In the little time she knew him, she had seen variants of this expression many times – when he spoke to courtiers, when he spoke to his patrol, even when he spoke to random ellyth about the grounds. She was his wife, after all. Did she not deserve better? Could she handle something better?

In the end, Rhinure settled for impassiveness, something she was comfortable and familiar with. She did not want to misconstrue what little Legolas was giving her or read too much into it. And neither did she want to seem too eager or slighted. The best solution was to remain calm.

Nevertheless, when Legolas stepped up to where she sat astride her horse, and she looked down into his eyes and saw the desire in them, she could not help but tremble slightly.

  x – x – x – x – x – x – x – x

Legolas' attention sharpened when he heard the hoof-beats of the Avari horses. He had been waiting for this moment, but now that it was here he found that he was not prepared. He wished he had more time to adjust to this.

What 'this' was, exactly, he was uncertain. Was it Rhinure's arrival? Was it the knowledge that the reunion would not be all that he hoped for? Was it the hurt that he knew she would cause him, and he, her? Or was it the marriage itself?

It could not be the marriage, Legolas finally decided, as the horses came into view. Rhinure was not a unpleasant person or particularly unattractive. And she was in the same position as he was. She was a ruler, people depended on her and her choices decided the lives of many. It was a lonely position to be in – and one best understood by those in similar predicaments themselves. Rhinure could give him that understanding, perhaps better than he had originally thought.

But would she do that for him?

Would he ask her to?

Legolas tensed as his eyes found Rhinure. Finally, there she was, dressed in her customary black with her hair tied back severely and her face forced into her calm, Sacrifice mould.

Legolas had forgotten how still that mould was – how unsettling. In his desire to have Rhinure back by his side, he had pushed aside the image of her surrounded by her Avari, silently telling him that he would never fit in with her people, with her – with her life.

Still, there she was. Legolas could not remember when he had started walking but he found himself coming closer to her.

As he advanced to her, his body tensed unknowingly. This close, he could see the sheen of her skin, which looked so soft. He could see the way small strands still managed to escape the chignon and caress her face. He could see the way her fingers clutched her horse's mane so tightly that they turned white. But most of all, he could see the emotions that churned in her eyes, emotions that she could not suppress.

As he stepped up to her, he could feel her tremble and realised that it was a perfect counterpoint to the tightness in his body.

  x – x – x – x – x – x – x – x

Thranduil watched his children with considerable amusement, musing that while they gave him many problems, they also entertained him like nothing else could. He wondered if they realised how much sexual tension surrounded them – probably not. It had been many centuries since Thranduil had felt such a sharp craving for his wife. He had always managed to suppress it, but now, watching his son look at his wife, he could not help remembering.

Legolas had not even noted that he had started off for his wife without asking for the King's permission or waiting to follow the King. Though it was in direct contravention of protocol, Thranduil was certain that Legolas did not even realise what he had done. He had seen his wife and had not been able to wait. It was as if his feet had moved without his consent.

Looking at the two of them, Thranduil had a suspicion that neither of them knew the extent of their own feelings, let alone what the other might be feeling. It would have been surprising in two such intelligent people, if Thranduil did not know that intelligence could be used to blind truths as often as it could expose them.

He saw Legolas offer to lift Rhinure down from her horse, even though she did not need it. Thranduil knew that urge to touch, that want for contact no matter how fleeting. It had been much the same for him and Eruante when they had been newly-weds.

He saw Rhinure hesitate but eventually acquiesce to Legolas' request. Legolas lifted her from her horse as if she weighed nothing, putting her down ever so gently. They might not have noticed it, but Legolas' hands lingered a little longer than were necessary around Rhinure's waist, holding her a little closer than was polite. Her palms rested on Legolas' forearms, fingers splayed, moving downwards very slowly – almost in a caress.

They were careful enough to step away from each other, not staying entwined as might be expected from a newly married couple, but they did not fool many. It was a gesture a little too late. The manner in which Legolas offered his arm and Rhinure took it was enough evidence for Thranduil, that the indifference was affected. Legolas' free hand came up to enclose the hand that rested on his arm, swallowing it almost possessively. The fact that Rhinure did not object to Legolas' familiarity spoke of an obliviousness to the intimacy of the gesture. She seemed to be concentrating on something else entirely, but then, so did his son.

Thranduil looked at the Avari escort behind Rhinure and immediately his eyes narrowed. It seemed as if at least one Avari had noted the lingering touches the Prince and Princess made almost unconsciously towards the other, and was not pleased. He watched the couple as carefully as Thranduil did, but there was no approval in his gaze. Just a speculation that made Thranduil's hair stand on end.

He beckoned Arandur forward. "Who is that elf?" he asked quietly.

Arandur glanced in the direction Thranduil had pointed and felt as if the ground had been removed from his feet. "Cothion." His answer was a strangled whisper.

Thranduil glanced sharply at his Captain, only to find a face which had lost all colour. Arandur looked like he was about to be ill, which worried the King. He had never seen Arandur so unnerved. "And this Cothion would be?"

"He is the Heir."

*~ And my brother.~*

"And should I be worried about him?"

"As much as you would be of any other Avari, my Lord."

*~ You should throw him out of the Realm. I do not want to see him. ~*

"That is not answer, Captain. Should I be worried about him, in comparison to Princess Rhinure?"

"Yes. He is much more dangerous than Mistress. Mistress cares – he does not." Shock made Arandur completely honest. He was too vulnerable at this moment to come up with a more circumspect answer. Seeing Cothion again felt like being run through by a particularly rusty blade. He had managed to avoid the older elf when he had escorted Rhinure earlier. The secrecy surrounding his presence had convinced Arandur that Cothion had not planned to stay for long. But now, riding openly, hood down, eyes flashing, Cothion was probably planning to stay for a while. The very thought of that made his blood run cold. He could not do this.

Thranduil pursued his lips at his Captain's answer. Any elf who could shake Arandur so badly was dangerous. And no elf, let alone one such as this Cothion, could be allowed to look at his son in such an alarming way.

This one would have to be watched even more closely than the Avari were at the moment.

  x – x – x – x – x – x – x – x

If Cothion had disapproved of Rhinure's behaviour before, it was fast approaching censure now. As soon as this Prince had come into sight, his Mistress had been displaced by this strange, soft elleth. The bond between husband and wife was private, intensely so. It was not something to be underestimated and neither was it to be so openly displayed. It was something that every Avari hid from view with a ferocity that was surprising until one had seen the pain that fear of loss brought with it. It was easier to keep the joy such a bond brought hidden because no one would understand the pain it brought with it as well.

For Rhinure to be so obvious in her affection bordered on the scandalous. Cothion felt almost embarrassed for her, the Prince must have seen attempts for what they were – failures. Rhinure was excited because she was near him, even Cothion who tried his hardest to avoid looking at her, could see it.

If her could make her so out-of-control after a few months of marriage what would he do after long exposure? Perhaps, this was first flush, a fever that would burn itself out. For fever it was.

Cothion watched as the Prince led Mistress Rhinure to where the King waited. He saw her move ever so slightly, so that she was closer to him, brushing his arm with hers now and again. He saw the Eldar bend over her head, to catch words she did not speak, inhaling her scent, agitating her.

Why did she not step back and end this charade? Why did she let him mock her like this?

Did she not notice? Did she not care?

He could only hope that once this initial meeting was over, Mistress would revert to the elleth he was at ease dealing with.

  x – x – x – x – x – x – x – x

By the time Rhinure reached where King Thranduil was standing, she felt slightly dazed, as one feels when one has been out in the sun for too long, or when someone has been hit by a particularly heavy object.

She was acutely aware of the warmth of the hand holding hers, the heat of the person beside her. By the time she reached the King, she felt more disturbed than she had ever felt – except for that one occasion. And unlike before, this was a pleasant disturbance. Why it should be so, she did not know. Nevertheless, it did not change the thrill that shot through her every time she brushed against him.

 She dipped her head in acknowledgment to King Thranduil's greeting, though she could not be sure what he said. It was something on the lines on how the Realm rejoiced that their Princess had retuned. Rhinure was more concerned with the way Legolas' fingers tightened over hers, as if in anger at her long absence.

  x – x – x – x – x – x – x – x

Thranduil smiled kindly at the couple, deciding not to drag out the greetings for too long. It was obvious – painfully so, that the two needed some time alone. However, he had to add, "We had planned a grand celebration to mark the end of the War and the beginning of this time of peace. Your timely return gives us all the more reason to celebrate."

Rhinure nodded automatically, though Thranduil was certain that she was not truly listening.

"We would be pleased if you would grace us with your company this evening," Thranduil finished.

Legolas frowned at the idea of sharing his wife with others so soon. He had known that Thranduil was planning a celebration to dovetail with her return, to have the entire Royal family present for when they celebrated the Wood-elves' victory, but he had not expected it to be so soon. He had expected at least one day with her before they were thrust back into court life.

After all, she had just come back. He had waited patiently for her to complete her duty, now it was his turn. Besides, he had seen this look in her eyes – a breathtakingly soft, vulnerable look, one that he wanted to explore, understand. He knew that she was as disoriented as he was to be together again, but he had to know whether that look was caused by anything else – anything more.

He was not willing to let this opportunity slip though his fingers again. For if there was one thing he knew about his wife, it was that given time Rhinure would be able to rebuild whatever wall she had in order to keep him out. 

His fingers unconsciously clenched around hers, as if afraid that she would move away from him. He should have been surprised when she moved closer in response, silently giving into his demand – a demand he had not been aware of making.

With that consent, he turned to his father. "We would be pleased to join you tonight. But, till then, we would appreciate the chance to take some respite."

Thranduil raised his eyebrows at Legolas' impertinent tone but decided to heed the warning behind the words. It showed an eagerness that Legolas had managed to disguise quite successfully till now. He would not be pleased to delay his reunion any further – some things could not be said or done in front of an audience.

"Shall I presume that you will still be in need of rest?"

'You may. In fact, we may be fatigued enough to retire early."

"As you see fit."

"Till the evening."

"Till the evening then, ion nín."

Legolas bowed and steered a silent Rhinure towards their chambers.

  x – x – x – x – x – x – x – x

Legolas looked at the silent elleth walking next to him and wondered why she did not speak to him. Had he displeased her in some manner? Had he not done something that made her behave as if it was a matter of great indifference that she had returned?

As he turned back and resolutely looked ahead, he despaired of ever understanding his wife.

  x – x – x – x – x – x – x – x

Rhinure peered at Legolas from under her lashes, being careful that he did not catch her. He had been so silent since he had seen her that she did not know how to behave around him. Legolas had always been so cheerful, even forcibly so on occasion. How else to explain his determined chatter when showing her around innumerable and inconceivably dull gardens?

And now, with her, he was silent? Not even a greeting.

Perhaps Rhinure had underestimated his eagerness to see her again. The letter he had sent must have been a courtier's words, charming but ultimately meaningless. Is that not what these elves did? Bandy pretty words to pass eternal time? It was just unfortunate that Rhinure took them seriously.

Rhinure looked down at her hand, which still rested on his arm and wondered. Would he drop even that when they arrived at their bedchambers?

  x – x – x – x – x – x – x – x

By the time the Prince and the Princess reached their chambers, the corridors were deserted – elves having some natural instinct to recognise the need others had for privacy. Neither commented on the fact that everyone seemed to disappear when they saw the Royal couple approaching. Perhaps Rhinure and Legolas did not notice.

Legolas opened the door, holding it open, allowing Rhinure to step in ahead of him. As she passed him, he caught a hint of her scent. He gripped the door a little tighter for he did not want to appear hysterical by seizing her.

She looked around the room, a little intrigued that Legolas brought her to his and not the Princess' chambers. She wondered if it was a foresight on his part or deliberate intent.

The room was unchanged, as she had expected. However, Rhinure has to acknowledge to herself that she was not paying much attention to the contents of the room. Her eyes kept straying back to the bed in the middle of the room. She had long wondered what Legolas' sheets would feel like under her skin, whether they would be as soft as she imagined on many a lonely night in Tirnen. She hoped she would have the opportunity to find out – soon.

As Rhinure surveyed his room, Legolas watched her, relearning the shape of her body, lingering over the sharp lines of her face. As his eyes trailed down, he was pleased to see his karha on her hand. The sight of those four rings completely drained the tension from his body.

Rhinure felt, more than heard Legolas move behind her. As she turned around she was surprised to find him standing so close. She could feel heat rising from him and wondered why she had not felt it sooner.

Legolas moved to enfold Rhinure in his arms when she turned. He pulled her towards him so that he could look at her properly. It seemed as if his action was unexpected for she placed a palm on his chest to steady herself. But once there, her palm seemed content to remain.

Rhinure traced the planes of Legolas' chest through the material of his robes as she had stroked his sheets. She was so involved in her progress that it was only when Legolas placed a gently restraining hand on hers that she realised that he was holding his breath.

She looked up questioningly, but the words died on her lips when she saw the look he was giving her. He slowly lifted the palm from his chest to his mouth. Starting from the centre he moved to each slender finger, lavishing the same deadly, soft kisses on each. Rhinure knew now why he had stopped breathing, for she, too, had difficulty filling her lungs.

When he was finished with her hand - after too short a time Rhinure thought – he picked up the other so that both were clasped firmly in his and pulled her closer until their faces were almost touching. "Mae govannen, hervess nin."             (Well met, my wife)

They were the first words he had spoken to her.

Legolas now waited for Rhinure's response, heart pounding. Would she return his welcome?

When Rhinure moved to free her hands, Legolas' heart twisted painfully. It seemed as it her return was not welcomed after all.

Rhinure saw the pain flash across his face and for once interpreted it correctly. Before he could move away from her, she quickly cradled his face in her palm, caressing his jaw with her thumbs. He stilled immediately and this time, the question was in his eyes.

In answer, Rhinure brought his mouth down on hers, putting everything that she felt but could not articulate into that one kiss.

When his arms came to rest around her waist, she knew that he understood. She intertwined her arms behind his neck, letting the weeks of longing have their course. Right now her feelings would not be denied.

There would be time enough for that later.

As Legolas moved her backwards, slowly but surely towards the bed, she knew that it would be much later.

  x – x – x – x – x – x – x – x

Thranduil looked up when he heard someone enter.

"We have them, hir nín."            (My Lord)

Thranduil smiled and waved to Maenon to take a seat.

  x – x – x – x – x – x – x – x

End of the First Cycle

So 209,000 words later the first cycle is over. I don't even want to think about the second.

But I would like this opportunity to thank my beta-reader Nilmandra who has been most patient with me and been more of a help and inspiration than she realises.

Also, a warm thank you to all the people who have been reading this and took the time out to review. I know I have said this before but you all make writing worthwhile. Hope that all of you will read the sequel.

Love you all.